AUSTIN, TEXAS — In times when America faced big issues, political debates served a larger purpose. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were significant because they helped Americans tackle the issue of slavery. The Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960 sketched the outlines of the cold war.
Americans followed these debates closely - through newspapers, and later, live television - sometimes gripping bags of popcorn.
Contrast that rapt attention with the generally low TV ratings of this year's presidential primary debates. The last of a series of Republican debates occurs tonight, and few expect the Nielsens to reach "ER"-like levels. To be sure, debates this early in the campaign generally don't stir the same level of interest as debates during the general election, but some observers say Americans are tuning out because debates have simply outlived their useful purpose.
No longer a way to distinguish candidates on critical issues, some debates have become as predictable as a pro-wrestling match, minus the tights. Others say the disinterest has deeper roots: In today's prosperous, peaceful times, there's no overriding economic or moral issue that draws in a national audience.
"These things usually are more dramatic at times when there are issues that are nagging at America, and there's not one of those in this election," says Thomas Patterson, a government professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.
Dr. Patterson conducted a survey of New Hampshire voters before, during, and after a recent debate among the six Republican candidates in New Hampshire. While voter interest spiked upward the day after the debates, during the peak of news coverage, the interest fell back down to what it had been the following day.
"People need something to wrap their arms around," says Patterson, himself a fan of debates. "If the news tells them that not much happened, it's a one-day phenomenon."
Certainly, the history of great American debates has offered moments that redefined presidential campaigns. Consider the second debate between Jimmy Carter and President Gerald Ford, when Mr. Ford mistakenly said that there was no Soviet dominance of Poland. His poll numbers dropped overnight.
But for the better part of a century, between the Civil War and the advent of television, debates were largely ignored outside of college prep schools. As a general rule, candidates rarely spoke the name of their opponents, preferring to give the impression that they were running unopposed.
Woodrow Wilson, for instance, never debated William Taft or Theodore Roosevelt. President Dwight Eisenhower appeared to prefer a round of golf to an evening with Adlai Stevenson. Even President Lyndon Johnson, an expert - some would say habitual - debater in Congress, didn't bother going head to head with his Republican opponent, Sen. Barry Goldwater, in 1964.
"He generally felt that he knew more about the issues than the next politician," chuckles George Christian, Johnson's press secretary, "and that was generally true."
"It was only as a result of the advent of television that debates took on any importance in presidential politics," adds Mr. Christian, now a public-affairs consultant in Austin, Texas. "But in this day and time ... there's so much competition for viewing time. Debates are diminished."
Reggie Bashur, a veteran Republican operative in Austin, agrees, saying that debates are, at best, a relic of politics past. "There was a time when debates were the only place to see what a candidate was like in person, but that is no longer the case," says Mr. Bashur. "These days, you can get in close proximity with any candidate you choose."
Of course, as a consultant paid to make his candidate look good, Bashur admits he has a bias against the chaos of debates.
"From the perspective of a candidate, it's just an exercise you try to get through without hurting yourself," he says. "The candidate that tries to win is the candidate who is willing to take a risk. And the candidate willing to take a risk is about to make a mistake."
Of course, the Great American Debate does have its enthusiastic supporters. While some admit that primary debates, with a half dozen Republicans or Democrats sparring over minor issues, can make for dull viewing, debates between the two main party candidates can be downright gripping.
"General election debates are the most watched election event on television," says E.J. Dionne, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "A lot of voters use them as a crash course. If they are undecided, they can take a few hours out of their lives to help get them up on the issues and the candidates."
In fact, voters often watch debates for the same reason that some folks watch the Indianapolis 500 auto race: for the crashes.
"A lot of attention goes to the gaffes, such as when Gerald Ford seemed to be giving away Poland, which he clearly didn't mean to do," says Mr. Dionne.
Paul Begala, another debate fan, suggests that debates might have something to do with the precipitous drop in George W. Bush's polling numbers - from 52 percent down to 31 percent in some polls - in New Hampshire.
"There's not an increase in negative ads. There's not any scandals," says Mr. Begala, a former consultant to the Clinton campaign, now a professor at Georgetown University. "The crystallizing events are these debates."
Like many political observers, Begala gives high marks to Sen. John McCain and Sen. Orrin Hatch in the past two debates, and low marks to Mr. Bush. "This looks like the hardest thing he's ever had to do, and it is."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society